Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Château de Pierrefonds

Last night, I went on an "information adventure." One that wasn't really possible just a few short years ago.

I happened to be playing with Google Earth, which is a data visualizers dream come true. Though, as great as it is, I'm anxiously waiting several features like time navigation and 3D image fills, so that it can actually be used in oceanographic research. But I digress....

At one point I found myself looking at some fancy 3D rendering of an iron crystal looking structure in Belgium.

From there I found myself browsing south to Colemar and Strasbourg, two towns I visited with my family about a dozen years ago. You can even see the Strasbourg cathedral in GE quite clearly. I recall climbing up to the top of it's main spiral and waving to my grandmother below as she sat in a cafe. The cathedral also contains a very cool, very complex and quite famous Astronomical clock, an amazing feat of technological accomplishment in the pre-digital days of 1842.

Unfortunately, much of the rest of France is still mostly in low resolution in Google Earth. Not the best for castle hopping the cheap way. Or in my case, reminiscing about former castle visits.

It was at this point I recalled that I never really figured out a random castle I once visited on a French exchange trip during my high school days. I was actually taken to the castle by by exchange family on one of our days off, so no one else on the trip went or knew of the castle (including my mother). All I remember is that we visited it on a day-trip from Paris, and that the town had something to do with Jeanne d'Arc, or more specifically, the end of her days.

So I looked her up on Wikipedia.

She was burned at the stake in Rouen.

According to Google Earth that's northwest of Paris, not the direction I remember.

But she was captured in Compiègne. That's to the northeast, about an hour out.

Now we're getting somewhere. The picture of Hôtel de ville de Compiègne on Wikipedia is distinctly familiar, particularly the statue of Jeanne d'Arc in front. I actually recall walking around the building, though I can't remember why my exchange family thought it was particularly interesting. Perhaps we visited a museum there? Either way, it's not the castle I remember.

So I started checking out the links. There's one for "Le musée du château" but that's for the Château de Compiègne, and it looks nothing like the one I'm looking for.

Then I tried the city council's web site. Mustering up as much of my french reading comprehension as I could recall, I looked through the site. Doucovrir - the page for visitors. Histoire - the page of interesting places to visit.

Whammo! Château de Pierrefonds. That's it!

As I read the story (in french) of the castle, a flood of memories all click back into place. For reassurance, now that I know what I'm looking for, I Google some additional references, and see more pictures I recall. The the large entry gate, the medieval knight on horseback in the courtyard, the grand staircase, and the fancy ornate woodwork in the main hall.

Even the story makes sense. It was build by Louis d'Orléans in the 14th century. Then destroyed by Louis XIII. Finally, Napoleon III ordered it to be rebuilt, so the castle has the distinct concoction of a combination of 14th and 19th century architecture. It also has a lot of animal sculptures for some reason.

Throughout this whole process, I learned some interesting tidbits about Compiègne, it's role in the end of WW1 and the start of WWII (which both involve the same railroad car). I even spent a little time learning about the french governing structure, since Compiègne is the sous-préfecture of the Oise département of France (say that fast). Why, there's even a town in Canada named Pierrefonds. Apparently someone there built a bad copy of the original castle (before he had even seen it) and the name of the town stuck.

The things you can find out today. And it's all thanks to the confluence of technology and information that make it possible.

Or at the very least, it certainly helps piece together old memories, assuming you don't get more confused by learning too many new things in the process.

Then again, technology won't help me recall perhaps the best part of the day. Pulling off the A1, sitting down on a log at the edge of a forrest and having the typical french picnic: ham and butter on a baguette.

Castles and French picnics.

I'm easily won over.